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Point/Counterpoint: Lock up Harper or Strasburg?

Nov 22, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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We’ve created a new weekly — or, depending on how motivated we are, perhaps bi-weekly — feature here at the Insider in which your two trusty authors will be engaging in some heated debates over matters of great concern to the Nationals. These are the kind of either/or scenarios that may not ever play out in real life but make for an entertaining discussion nonetheless. They also give Chase and me a chance to take unwarranted shots at each other in a public forum.

So, without further ado, we present the first installment of … drum roll, please … Nats Point/Counterpoint!

THIS WEEK’S DEBATE: IF GIVEN A CHOICE TO SIGN ONLY ONE TO A LONG-TERM EXTENSION, WHO SHOULD THE NATS PICK: BRYCE HARPER OR STEPHEN STRASBURG?

MARK ZUCKERMAN: Wow, gotta love these doomsday scenarios. It’s like the rogue cop character who has 15 seconds to defuse a bomb and has to decide whether to cut the red or the blue wire. It’s unlikely the Nationals will find themselves in this precise scenario some day, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest they may only have the means to retain one of their two historic No. 1 draft picks. And if it did come down to this, I believe they should take Harper over Strasburg, for one simple reason: He’s more of a sure thing. Position players are less likely to suffer career-derailing injuries, not to mention have longer careers regardless of health factors. Obviously, you never know what could happen seven, eight, even 10 years into the future, but Harper sure seems more likely to be worth the money down the road than Strasburg.

CHASE HUGHES: Yikes, is it 2017 yet? The Nationals probably get the shakes just thinking of the day they will have to choose between the two, if that day comes. With Scott Boras involved, however, you know they’ll feel the heat at some point. Thankfully the Nationals have a few years to evaluate both players before deciding which, if either, they want to keep long-term. My instinct would say go with the position player, but Strasburg has proven far more in his time in the majors than Harper has. Strasburg already is an elite pitcher — or at least close to it — while Harper still benefits from the mystery of potential. Also, signing pitchers to extensions instead of position players isn’t always the wrong move. Look at the St. Louis Cardinals. Sure, a lot of letting Albert Pujols walk had to do with his age, but they tend to side with pitching over offense when it comes to spending money, and they are doing just fine. And as far as injuries go, Mark, Harper may need to learn where the walls are before you make that proclamation.

MZ: Are you sure you haven’t run into a wall or two yourself lately, my young friend? You’re more concerned about Harper’s long-term health than Strasburg? Let’s see … Harper crashed into a wall, missed a month and a half and still wound up as one of the most-productive 20-year-olds in history. Strasburg, meanwhile, just had his second elbow surgery by age 25. While you’d certainly hope he never has to deal with that again, the odds aren’t exactly in his favor. And are you really going to try to compare Pujols to Harper in this regard? Albert was entering his age 32 season when he signed with the Angels. Bryce will have just turned 26 when he becomes a free agent!

CH: Well, my head does hurt now after reading your argument. I can’t disagree with the fact that, in general, a pitcher is more of an injury risk than a position player. In almost every case, it is a safer bet to go with the everyday player. But there are exceptions, and players who put their body at risk like Harper can encounter problems. Harper’s hustle has been compared to a lot of players throughout history, but one he’s always reminded me of is Chase Utley. Utley plays harder than just about anybody and he’s paid for it. In this case, I think both players have shown to be injury prone so far in their careers. The difference is Strasburg has proven himself to be an elite player, regardless of his age. Harper is great for 20, but he will have to improve to justify a franchise player’s deal. Strasburg is, at least production-wise, already there.

MZ: Obviously, Harper still has plenty of room to grow. But I’ve yet to hear anyone even remotely suggest he won’t get there, and soon. Barring injury, of course. But how much better will Strasburg get? Is there another level for him to reach, or is this pretty much who he’ll be the rest of his career? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but at the moment he’s a borderline All-Star and not in the conversation for “Best Pitcher in the Game.” Harper already is a two-time All-Star who appears merely to have scratched the surface of his true potential. I suppose there’s a slim chance he won’t ultimately realize it, but the odds are way in his favor. For some reason — and I’m not even sure I can articulate why — I’m not as convinced about Strasburg.

  1. David Proctor - Nov 22, 2013 at 6:14 AM

    Both still haven’t reached their potential. But I’m taking Harper without even a second thought. I’m taking the position player with Hall of Fame upside over a pitcher with Tommy John any time. Even if Strasburg’s ceiling were higher than Harper’s, I’m taking Harper. And even if Harper weren’t a generational talent, I would probably take him over Strasburg. That’s nothing against Stras. It’s just, if I’m forced to choose, I’m not spending my investment on a pitcher with TJS. I’m spending on the guy who plays every day.

    Also Chase, the Cardinals used the Pujols money to lock up several position players. Allen Craig and Yadier Molina both got extensions because of that. Wainwright did too, but still.

  2. David Proctor - Nov 22, 2013 at 6:21 AM

    For the record, Strasburg gets criticized here a lot sometimes and rightfully so. He’s not been the most mentally strong person at times. But I’ve also seen him grow over the years. Even in 2013, we saw him grow a lot. I think sometimes we see what guys like Kershaw and Trout do at younger ages and get upset that our guys aren’t doing it at the same rate. Every player develops differently. I still think Strasburg has a Cy Young in his future–if he’s healthy. And I have no doubt that Harper will put up MVP numbers in due time.

  3. trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 6:22 AM

    No question in my mind, Harper is the pick, higher upside (relativily) and younger, and also a lot more of a clubhouse figure imo. Put on top of all that a position player who is only 21 and had two dam good mlb season ALREADY easy answer a harder one would have been desmond or harper, i still take harper, in fact i take harper over anyone else on the team as an extention candiate

  4. sjm308 - Nov 22, 2013 at 7:34 AM

    Nice column that is begging us to respond.

    I also take Harper and he is one of about 6 players in this league that I can honestly see giving that 10 to 12 year contract. I agree with trochlis that he would be my number one target to extend but I don’t think they work that way. This is off topic but the same argument can be made for the two Nats who are getting close to being extended. If you can only lock up one do you take the everyday SS or the stud pitcher? Hope that doesn’t get this off track but I am betting Harper gets way over 75% of the votes on this. This has nothing to do with skill set but I also love what Harper brings to the team attitude-wise and am not so thrilled about Strasburg in front of a mike. There have been other pitchers who did not project all that well (Steve Carlton was famous for not talking at all and Randy Johnson never thrilled me) but Harper screams enthusiasm and focus and all the things I like to see in a player. Bottom line, I guess I take the everyday player each and every time if its close. Agree this one is close and so Harper is my choice.

    Finally, I would like to see the same article rewritten and give Chase/ Harper and Mark/ Strasburg. Just want to see if there are any new arguments to be added.

  5. 3on2out - Nov 22, 2013 at 7:48 AM

    Choosing Strasburg is a fool’s errand. It doesn’t matter who writes his defense…there is no choice. If it’s only one: Harper by a light year.

  6. nats128 - Nov 22, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    I have to go with Bryce Harper. Chase made some good points however Im not buying.

  7. Hiram Hover - Nov 22, 2013 at 8:04 AM

    Yeah, Harper by a mile.

    Another thing to consider – the pipeline is packed with young arms. Losing Stras and JZimm is going to sting, but the Nats are preparing for that day.

  8. blovy8 - Nov 22, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    Yeah, it’s an easy choice of Harper, even if you just go by age. You can sign Harper for all his peak years at this point, with Strasburg, you’re bound to get some later years where he’s adjusting to lost velocity that won’t be as valuable. Like Hover says, the Nats already drafted a guy, Giolito, that you can see as an ace if he develops, there’s very few guys like Harper that come along, and I can more easily see getting a top starter of his level. like David Price, in a trade in the future, than a guy like Miguel Cabrera, if they stay successful and can’t get the top prospects in the draft.

  9. Jw - Nov 22, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    Chase you ignorant slut.

  10. DaveB - Nov 22, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    Seems to be screaming for a devil’s advocate here, so I’ll make an argument for Stras:
    1. I think Znn looks like he really wants to test FA, and Gio looks good, but not necessarily that ace / anchor to the rotation that every great team needs. As he matures, Stras can be that guy, much like Verlander in Detroit.
    2. As the current FA season is showing, it is getting harder and harder to pick up elite pitchers at an affordable rate ($35M for 2 years of a possibly fading Lincecum???, 4/52 for EJax???, Ervin Santana asking for $100M????). Smart teams (with the money) are locking up their top pitchers earlier & earlier.
    3. Corner outfielders are much easier to replace if needed. Obviously, not necessarily at the Harper level but Boston showed this year that you can be very successful getting multiple middle-tier position players, and SF & St. Louis have shown a model for leading with lots of pitching

  11. trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 8:55 AM

    counter arguement to your arguement, while yes corner outfielders are easier to replace than aces, mvp caliber corner outfielder is harder to replace than an ace, also we have a potential ace in giolito in 2015 so its not like we will be without an ace for 10+ years

    • jd - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:23 AM

      Giolito in 2015? really?

      • trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:50 AM

        yah i think so, i figure by the end of 2014 we could see him in the bullpen providing he doesn’t get injured, optimistic i know, but he gonna start off in High A most likely whos to say we don’t move him up like Jordan

      • jd - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM

        Trochils318,

        He hasn’t pitched an inning above rookie ball and he’s 19 years old. If he graduates to high A by the end of 2014 that would be spectacular success.The comparison to Jordan is not valid. Jordan is much older. Also keep in mind that Giolito will be on an innings limit in 2014 (probably no more than 140) and probably no more than 160 in 2015.

        At the beginning of 2016 Giolito will be 21 and if he’s ready by then it will still be incredibly fast.

      • trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:28 AM

        he pitched in low A this year for 14 innings with a 0.64 so i expect him to start out in High A if he does well there is no telling when he might be promoted to double it could a jose fernedez esqe case, although he will be on an innigs limit so i doubt he makes the majors in 2014 but in 2015 yeah we could definatly be seeing him, assuming he starts 2015 in AA

    • blovy8 - Nov 22, 2013 at 2:35 PM

      That’s a pretty aggressive prediction for a guy who’s coming off TJ surgery and will fall under Rizzo’s rehabbing “book”. We can be pretty sure he’ll be treated carefully in terms of how many more innings he pitches each year.

  12. natsfan1a - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    Dang, I was all set to add my own SNL shout-out but the comment is gone. Oh well. You snooze, you lose, I suppose. :-)

  13. Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    You sure don’t want to make these types of decisions ever but it makes it easier after winning a World Series. Hard to believe the Red Sox will allow Jacoby Ellsbury or Napoli walk after they were so integral in winning the WS and it happens all the time.

    On the other hand, the Pujols split from the Cardinals was an ugly hurtful breakup with a homegrown talent leaving and amazingly it was a blessing in disguise for the Cardinals and a nightmare for the Angels.

    You just never know in baseball.

  14. jd - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:26 AM

    Clearly Harper by a landslide for all the reasons mentioned in the article and by the posters. Having said that I would really love to lock both of these cornerstone players for many years and if this comes at the cost of losing other important pieces so be it. That’s what development is for.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:43 AM

      This is why that MASN TV money is key to cashflow and profitability to where the Nats could really step up with the big market teams and sign on 4 more players like JZim, Desi, Harp and Stras long-term and add $40 million annually to payroll but probably won’t because of MASN.

      This is the crossroads where MASN keeps the Nats from doing what they need to start to do which is tie up JZim and Desi and probably Stras and Harp next year.

      I think at $125 million payroll the team plus all other expenses the team will lose money because of the lack of equitable TV money. While Mr. Lerner is rich, some of the other partners like James Brown probably don’t wantto be writing back ownership checks for losses.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:05 AM

        The team has revenue streams they have not tapped like selling stadium naming rights and aggressively tapping into their own radio network but other than that it looks bleak on revenues.

        They are just so handcuffed on TV rights that it’s difficult to raise revenues like the other 29 teams have the sovereign ability to do.

      • Jw - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:56 AM

        The MASN money is irrelevant. The number that matters is the luxury tax threshold, currently $189M I think.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:21 AM

        Jw, luxury tax is a future consideration which I don’t think they have any worries about if they continue to bring in the youngsters in key positions like Rendon and TJord and Roark etc.

      • Jw - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:31 AM

        As usual you miss the point. The Lerners are multi-billionaires. They can continue to spend money up to the luxury tax threshold and beyond, MASN money or no. The only question is whether they would be willing to pay the tax if they go high.

      • Jw - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:36 AM

        Also, in one of his recent chats Boswell mentioned the time he brought up the MASN impasse to Ted Lerner, and Lerner shrugged it off. They’re not hindered at all by lack of MASN money.

      • Hiram Hover - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:43 AM

        JW

        I think you’re right that the MASN $$$ isn’t the determining factor, but it’s not irrelevant. The Lerners are good businesspeople, and no good businesspeople just shrug off tens of millions of dollars a year.

        He may well have shrugged off the question because there’s no resolution in sight and no benefit to be had by bitching about it in public. Their planning has to proceed under the current funding realities.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 12:13 PM

        Jw, why get nasty? Do you understand the term fiduciary responsibility to minority shareholders? The fact that Lerner is the majority shareholder doesn’t give him the right to make reckless business decisions because he can personally afford it. Business doesn’t work that way and that’s how lawsuits occur. You can’t run a business like the US Government and stay in business. If your payroll is going to $125 million you better get revenues close to it.

        I also don’t think MASN by itself is the determining factor but it would take care of the revenue gap.

        For other current events read Barron’s article on how Jim Crane is suing former Astros owners and all shareholders plus NBC and Comcast over their TV debacle. He’s concerned about the Astros only get paid on 46% of Houston residents and the Nats currently get paid on less than 20% of all DC households.

      • jd - Nov 22, 2013 at 12:21 PM

        Well said Ghost

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 12:36 PM

        jd, thank you and luckily there are intelligent people like you here that understand the big picture. Some of these people think this is Monopoly money or the team is a hobby for Mr. Lerner. I think there can be passion from ownership while being prudent.

        Projections are that the Nats will be in the Top 10 in payroll for 2014 and possibly #9 depending on what the White Sox do.

        The Orioles are at $91 million and could decrease payroll. Angelos is now a billionaire according to Bloomberg. Why doesn’t he grab Cano and David Price? He’s a billionaire, he can afford it. Is Angelos cheap?

      • Jw - Nov 22, 2013 at 12:37 PM

        The team is owned by the Lerners, who are billionaires. They took on minority owners to appease various constituencies within MLB while bidding for the team. James Brown is a perfect example. But the Lerners can run the team any way they want. If a minority owner makes a fuss, they can buy him out at ten times what the guy paid to get in with no sweat at all. There is absolutely no scenario where they would need to make a cash call on a minority owner. Repeat after me: the Lerners are billionaires.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 12:52 PM

        Jw, maybe they wouldn’t make a cash call. Angelos did several years back to the surprise of no one in 1994. It would also be easy for Lerner to add the payroll by consulting with all owners and informing them but this is a crossroads year getting to $125 million based on estimates of revenue this will be their 1st shortfall. Sure, Lerner will write a check, no question. I hope they never allow deficits to hinder personnel decisions but even the Yankees have shown their are limits.

        I just believe this is a reality with teams. What Crane and Loria have done could happen to any team where they gut it to almost AAA quality. A fair MASN deal solves all revenue issues even up to $160 million I believe.

  15. trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    4 players of those calibers, jzim desi, harp, and stras would be minimum of 60 mil per year not 40 putting the team at about 160 ish

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 9:57 AM

      You don’t start ay point 0 as these plasters all have projected salaries for 2014. You are talking about adding payroll to go above this year’s $125.million estimate. JZim is already estimated at $10 million for this year and Desi at $7 million and you back load Harper’s longterm deal.

      An aside is to remember that Werth is off the books after 2017 and he peaks at $21 mill for 2016 and 2017.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM

        “Plasters”, should read “players”, darn speller. Also Strasburg is estimated at $6 million for 2014.

      • trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:31 AM

        ghost when you say 4 more players like them i automatically replicate the “like them” part into projected WAR by the 4 of them comibined. Between JZ Desmond, Stras, and Harper i can see at least 12 (only an average of 3 WAR per player, all of which they surpassed last year) adding 12 WAR with the going rate being 5mil per win puts it at 60million which is where i came up with the numbers.

      • trochlis318 - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:32 AM

        also adding 60 million to the payroll would put us closer to 160 million total which is where i came up with that number

      • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:41 AM

        Value is one thing but adding to payroll is incremental above what they make or the estimated amount in arbitration.

  16. Faraz Shaikh - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    Neither? That line of thinking also needs exploring.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 10:24 AM

      Yes, the 4th outcome. Keep neither. Each player has their own wants and needs.

    • Hiram Hover - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:26 AM

      Well, it’s all about price.

      I think there’s a good chance that both players demand a price so high that the team won’t be able to lock up either.

      But that’s reality, not the fantasy GM game Mark and Chase invited us to play.

  17. Theophilus T.S. - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    They have to be prepared to go over the top for both players. It may be moot because I strongly believe that if permitted to get to FA status Strasburg ends up an LAA or LAD. Unless Strasburg starts — soon — to deliver according to his ability I’d favor a blockbuster trade w/ some team willing to take a chance they can compete w/ one of those two teams. (WaPo posits the Nats’ Scherzer strategy is to take a pass this year, scoop him up in 2015 when the only added cost is a draft choice. This will present a similar situation for the Dodgers, Angels.)

    Right now you pick Harper over Strasburg. Strasburg is not an every day player; in fact he’s not even an every-five-days player. And on some of the days he brings his arm to the ballpark he leaves his head at home. The exploding cost of pitching says that by 2017 — assuming, optimistically, he matures into a true No. 1 starter (Zimmermann is the true backbone of the rotation right now) — he’ll be commanding well in excess of $25MM/annum, maybe $30MM. I’m not willing to project five years beyond that (age 33 year?) at that sort of price. By 2017 he’ll be a replaceable luxury.

  18. Hiram Hover - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    Maybe I missed it, but was there any discussion here yesterday of the Jason Vargas deal and what it means for the Nats signing a FA starting pitcher?

    I don’t think the Nats had any particular interest in Vargas, but he seems in a general way like the kind of guy they might look at for the #4-5 slot – slightly below average but durable and a proven quantity.

    $32/4 yrs seems like a lot (in years if not annual value) for a player I don’t think anyone can get very excited about.

    • Doc - Nov 22, 2013 at 11:49 AM

      Just thinking the same thing, HH.

      I mean an almost over-the-hill pitcher with a FB that doesn’t touch 88 mph, getting $32mm for 4 years. And he ain’t that durable anymore, given his recent DL status. The Angels were/are desperate for pitching and they didn’t want him around.

      KC is even more desperate!!!!

      If I were Rizzo, I’d stick to the farm system. At least the arms are young and fresh for a few years.

  19. Sec 3, My Sofa - Nov 22, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    OK, let me throw a twist into the hypothetical.

    Suppose they’re offered the equivalent of Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore (and WTH, throw in Lee Stevens) in their 2002 seasons, which one would you trade for that package?

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Nov 22, 2013 at 1:04 PM

      Sounds like what Tampa will want for Price.

    • Faraz Shaikh - Nov 22, 2013 at 4:13 PM

      Did you mean some team offered those players for either Harper or SS and which one of them we trade away for that package? I will trade both. Instead of having one or two high WAR players, I prefer multiple 4+ WAR players.

      • Sec 3, My Sofa - Nov 22, 2013 at 6:12 PM

        Yes, that is what I meant, but I think you mean you would trade *either* one, since the point was to turn the hypothetical on its pointed little head and ask which you felt was more expendible, not more valuable. Forced choice. Or are you saying you’d make that deal even if the other side insisted on both?

  20. Eugene in Oregon - Nov 22, 2013 at 4:32 PM

    Mark Zuckerman: If you find yourself in that scenario, don’t ever cut the red wire. Never.

    • Sec 3, My Sofa - Nov 22, 2013 at 6:12 PM

      LIKE

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